State welfare roll plummets; needy turn to Maine cities

By Kathryn Skelton, Sun Journal
Posted Sept. 23, 2012, at 5:41 a.m.

Last winter the state gave Lewiston a heads-up: 337 families were about to lose state welfare benefits.

Portland had 237, the second-highest number among all Maine cities, in the same boat.

Those families had nearly hit the state’s new 60-month lifetime limit in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, exhausting benefits. They could apply for an extension or turn to the cities for General Assistance.

In Lewiston, 75 have asked for city help so far. Two-thirds of those applications are pending. Lewiston has already given out nearly $10,000 in benefits to the 24 families approved.

In the past nine months, under new state law:

Advocates for the poor say the reforms have left some people confused and going without. The Governor’s Office says there have been massive savings, with the TANF changes alone set to save millions. Cities say the state’s savings are, in some cases, at their expense.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald supports people coming off TANF. He bristles at Lewiston supporting them instead.

Yet, if they qualify, they can’t be turned away.

“This is just unbelievable,” Macdonald said Wednesday, pointing to a number of former TANF recipients coming in with no high school diplomas and “absolutely no job skills.”

“Some are still looking for their GED,” he said. “Well, what have you been doing for five years?”

TANF, MaineCare reforms

The TANF cuts were part of Gov. Paul LePage’s spring 2011 budget. Under it, the state drew a firm line at 60 months for families receiving aid, which averages $400 a month. It also imposed the Full Family Sanction, according to Michael Frey, deputy director of the Department of Heath and Human Services’ Office for Family Independence. Before, if a parent violated program rules, benefits continued at a reduced amount for the children’s sake.

Now, at the second violation, the entire family is dropped.

In January, as those changes started taking effect, Maine had 14,109 families receiving TANF benefits.

Last week, that caseload had declined to 10,464, the lowest number in years.

The state picks up roughly 15 percent of TANF costs, according to the Office of Fiscal Program Review. The balance is paid by a federal block grant.

Maine is on pace to save $2.5 million with the reduced caseload, Frey said.

Just over 2,900 households have received notice of an impending 60-month sunset so far. Frey said 549 have successfully asked for up-to-six-month extensions for reasons such as caring for a disabled family member and documented evidence of domestic abuse. Another 351 people have asked and been denied.

Robyn Merrill is concerned about the number not seeking extensions.

A January 2011 survey by the University of New England and the University of Maine found “nearly 90 percent of folks who were getting TANF for 60 months or longer were managing a disability within the family, either the parent themselves had a work-limiting disability or a child or another family member had a disability,” said Merrill, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners. “It’s concerning that more people haven’t applied for or received an extension, just based on what we know.”

She isn’t sure if the process isn’t clear, if people are not being told they can apply or if they’re being discouraged.

“We’re hearing that people are having different experiences in different offices in different parts of the state,” Merrill said.

Tina Hutchinson, 45, of Lewiston, said she scrambled after getting her 60-month notice this spring. Hutchinson has a 12-year-old son with special needs. He was born without soft spots in his skull, had surgery as a baby, and has behavioral and medical issues now.

“I’ve tried working periodically over the years. I would get called at work to get my son,” she said. “Day care couldn’t handle him, then the schools couldn’t handle him.”

She was told she couldn’t apply for an extension based on his care: He is in school now, though she gets frequent calls. Hutchinson applied instead based on her own health. She’s awaiting word from Social Security on her request to receive disability benefits.

The extension process was confusing and intensive, she said. Hutchinson needed letters from her neurologist, pulmonologist, primary doctor and pain management specialist.

Her benefits expired in June. She received a six-month extension until November. TANF pays for her family’s rent, medical co-pays and gas.

She’s been warned that “the second extension is going to be a harder sell,” Hutchinson said. “My health hasn’t gotten any better, but I’m still at the mercy of Social Security.”

Frey has heard the complaints about the process. For continuity, two program managers have reviewed every extension request, he said, though staff in the regions are now being trained.

About 100 to 150 sunset letters continue to go out each month as people near that 60-month TANF limit.

Also part of last year’s welfare changes:

Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued DHHS over that change in April. The suit is pending in federal court in Bangor.

Figures were not available for the number of legal non-citizens denied TANF under the changes.

Issues of it being cost-effective and legal have cropped up.

“I think it’s been a little more of a challenge than we had anticipated, but we continue to work on it because it is on the books and we need to find a way,” he said.

A spokeswoman in Gov. LePage’s office said the governor continues to support that provision.

‘An incensed taxpayer’

Since the TANF changes took place, Portland has seen only one application from someone who timed off that program and is now seeking General Assistance from the city, said spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. Twenty-seven other families who had been receiving both TANF and GA benefits are now receiving more GA, having left TANF. That has cost the city $26,730.82 so far.

In Auburn, Dorothy Meagher, director of health and social services, has seen 16 new applications.

Maine towns are required by statute to offer General Assistance for basic needs, and there isn’t a timed shut-off for families, she said. Auburn has spent $8,683 so far on those new applicants.

The state does reimburse cities for a portion of their GA costs.

“We knew this was going to increase (the budget) some, but this was more than we expected,” Meagher said. “We’re paying for a lot more diapers — we never budgeted that much for diapers before.”

In Lewiston, those 75 former TANF families applying for GA represent 361 people. Twenty-four applications have been approved and the city has paid $9,296.94 in benefits so far to them.

Mayor Macdonald says the city has, in a sense, gotten lucky: Many of the former TANF recipients live in subsidized housing. If Lewiston had to kick in GA money to pay for full rent, that bill might be $25,000 to $30,000.

In July, he wrote a letter to Gov. LePage asking for an investigation of TANF administrators who oversee its ASPIRE program. He asked how people could receive help for 60 months and not leave with job skills or enough English to easily communicate with General Assistance staff. Macdonald said he was told the governor would look into it.

“I run meetings, I break ties, but I also have the power of the bully pulpit. I consider myself an incensed taxpayer,” he said. “No one really cares what happens here — we have to care for ourselves.”

Macdonald met with the local legislative delegation Wednesday, rallying them, he said. He’s looking to the Legislature for help.

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the leading Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said she could foresee the cost-shift coming to cities.

A 26 percent decline in the TANF caseload “indicates to me that those costs have been shifted to the local community and that the needs of those people have not gone away,” Rotundo said.

Maine needs to focus on stimulating job creation, releasing bond money, investing in roads and bridges, and research and development, she said. “We need to figure out how we’re going to solve this problem of making sure that people have employment. To slash programs when there’s no place for people to go doesn’t solve the problem.”

Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. LePage, said some TANF savings will be reinvested into training and transitional programs.

“The governor believes in a quality safety net for our most vulnerable and also empowering Mainers to become self-reliant,” she said.

Bennett said tightening eligibility requirements and capping the length of time General Assistance can be used for housing would help reduce those costs. Both would need legislative buy-in.

“The bottom line is that the LePage administration is trying to give municipalities the tools they need to rein in GA spending that is crippling (their) budgets,” she said.

A statewide working group that’s been tasked to find savings and suggest changes in the General Assistance program is also set to hear a proposal soon from one of its subcommittees, Merrill said: Whether to recommend an extension of TANF benefits for people working toward employability. It could be one way to shift some cost from GA back onto the TANF program.

With such a change, the rolls could go back up. According to TANF rules, it’s possible to hit 60 months, leave and apply for an extension later to get back on the program.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/09/23/politics/state-welfare-roll-plummets-needy-turn-to-maine-cities/ printed on November 26, 2014